EXPANDING RT-PCR based testing to diseases other than Covid-19, vaccine formats that obviate the need for cold chains, portable and cutting-edge wearables, and AI-based diagnostic solutions that can be activated on a cellphone. Rewiring and tweaking existing medical technologies and diagnostic methods — primarily in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic — was the overarching theme at the two-day Biotech Startup Expo 2022 in the capital which ended on Friday.
There were over 300 stalls spanning the biotech spectrum — medical technology, agricultural tech, diagnostics, vaccine technology, biotech incubators etc.
Tucked in a corner of the Expo hall at the newly-built Pragati Maidan complex in New Delhi was a stall of Graphic Era Deemed University, Dehradun, where three senior professors from the biotechnology department stood in front of a marquee that read “RT-PCR based testing for typhoid”.
“The current method for detecting salmonella typhi (for typhoid) is an elaborate one, but is still quite inaccurate. Our research department has developed and patented an RT-PCR based testing kit to detect the disease,” Navin Kumar, Professor and Head of Biotechnology at Graphic Era, said.
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While the testing kit was developed over seven years ago, Kumar said the relevance of such a method has increased now. “Before the pandemic, the RT-PCR infrastructure was not widespread, but it is now present across small towns and villages, where people have been tested for Covid-19. This has presented an opportunity for other diseases to be diagnosed using RT-PCR methods,” he said.
Compared to other methods, RT-PCR is almost entirely accurate, said Kumar, adding that RT-PCR checks for the actual pathogen, as compared to other diagnosis methods that look for antigens or antibodies.
The deemed university has commercialised this method under a technology transfer arrangement with Delhi-based Vanguard Diagnostics – a manufacturer of diagnostic products.
At another stall at the Expo, Vanguard Diagnostics’ Director, Technical, R P Tiwari pointed out that with the prevalence of RT-PCR testing infrastructure across the length and breadth of the country, the cost of conducting such tests for other ailments has decreased.
“Earlier, some labs did RT-PCR testing to check for hepatitis, but that cost more than Rs 7,000. Now, there are machines all over that will become useless once Covid-19 has eased. With just different testing kits, we will be able to get accurate diagnosis on diseases such as typhoid, malaria, and any other disease involving a virus, bacteria, etc.,” Tiwari said. He said the company has over 200 distributors that are helping it deliver these products pan-India.
The geographical expanse and heterogeneity of the country also presents certain challenges in terms of logistics – a concern that was initially faced by vaccine makers during the pandemic. A Bengaluru-based biotech startup, Mynvax, which was incubated at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), is developing a “warm vaccine” that eliminates the need for costly and elaborate cold storage supply chain systems. The company claims that when lyophilised (freeze drying), its Covid-19 vaccine can withstand 90 minutes of exposure to 100 degrees Celsius, and over a month at 37 degrees Celsius.
The Mynvax vaccine for Covid-19 is being built on the recombinant subunit platform as compared to the cell-culture or egg-based technology, which enables it to get manufactured faster. The startup, which has raised early stage funding from investors like Accel, is working on developing human influenza vaccines as well.
Besides Covid-focussed or led solutions, some other startups at the Expo aimed to bring out products that solve India-specific problems. For example, a recurrent theme was the unavailability of large and sophisticated diagnosis and monitoring equipment in rural areas. So, USAID-backed Bengaluru-based startup Cardiac Design Labs has developed a five-in-one wearable device that claims to monitor a patient’s vitals nearly akin to that in an intensive care unit (ICU), without the need for heavy equipment or trained care staff.
The product, named Padma Vitals, records information like non-electrode ECG, cuffless blood pressure, respiration rate, body temperature and blood oxygen saturation levels, with features such as alarms, remote monitoring, trend recording, episode detection, etc.
Speaking to The Sunday Express, the company’s Founder & CEO, Anand Madanagopal, said the product is seeing use-cases at primary health care centres, remote medical facilities and home healthcare facilities among others.
“The device connects to a mobile phone app via bluetooth, and thereon it requires only 20 kbps bandwidth to upload the data to the centralised system from where a doctor can remotely monitor a patient’s vitals. A key aspect of this product is that it does not require trained nurses to operate this,” he said, as he demonstrated the vitals of a patient in Bengaluru on his laptop.
Over the last few decades, the subsumption of various devices and technologies into the smartphone has spurred meaningful innovation in the health tech industry. Hyderabad-based Logy.AI has built artificial intelligence solutions that allow people to send a WhatsApp image of their eyes or teeth to an automated message bot, which then feeds the image to the AI engine for it to diagnose a problem. The startup claims to use artificial intelligence-based image processing models to gauge – from the photo of eyes sent as a WhatsApp message – whether a person has cataract, which the startup says is responsible for 70 per cent of blindness in India.
The startup’s service for users is done via a WhatsApp chatbot, where users can send an image of their eyes in the chat box and Logy.AI’s image processing algorithms will assess the image to ascertain whether or not that person has cataract. It claims that its image processing algorithms can detect whether a person has cataract or not with an accuracy of around 92 per cent.
Logy.AI says it will not charge any fee from users for its service. It said that its revenue will come from partnerships with hospitals and diagnostics firms – it plans to charge an annual fee from these entities to share users’ data so that hospitals can suggest remedies/ tests to those with medical issues.
Also at the Expo was Ahmedabad-based Bioscan Research, which has developed a screening device to detect intracranial haemorrhage called Cerebo, that can find out if a head trauma patient is suffering internal bleeding, in a non-invasive and non-radiative method. The portable device, which has been listed on the government’s procurement portal GeM (Government e-Marketplace), costs Rs 14 lakh.
A representative of the startup said the main use-case was for sports teams, emergency rooms and trauma centres that can operate the portable device without the need for sophisticated MRI machines or other radiation-based diagnosis equipment that also need licensing from the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board to operate.
The Cerebo works on the near-infrared technology, which in medical use, mainly has application to screen intracranial bleeding. “The product helps in early detection of internal bleeding. A doctor on site may be able to gauge whether a trauma patient has a concussion but any delay in judging the bleeding can be dangerous,” said the representative.